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Russian Goldwork and Beadweaving Tradition

The Russian Ornament Sourcebook

Embroidery made with golden and silver threads in ancient times was common for many nations. In the 5th century, Byzantine and Persian craftsmen used goldwork embroidery for clothes design and home decoration. Later, goldwork embroidery appeared in Europe, but primarily, it was made and handled as a sacral treasure used for priests clothes and churches decoration. In Russia, goldwork embroidery appeared in the 11th century. Goldwork ateliers and workshops were located at convents and in the royal chambers in St.Petersburg, Moscow, Ivanovo and Torzhok. The most beautiful works were made in Torzhok. It is a place where the tradition of goldwork stretches back to the 12-13th centuries. Beaded jewellery and beadweaving for costume embellishment were widely spread in the Central part of Russia. The most common element of many beaded works were pearl beads.

a sketch of an embroidery pattern

Makers used pearls for church embroidery and decoration of church interiors. It was a sign of wealth to have pearl beaded earrings, a necklace or tiara decorated with tassels of tiny pearl beads or decorative nets made of pearls. Those stayed popular accessories in the traditional Russian costume up to the 20th century. A piece of jewellery made of freshwater pearls was considerably expensive. It took long hours to process all necessary materials, find a suitable size of pearl beads and make a pair of earrings, a bracelet or a necklace. The main materials used for beadweaving were: fine metal wire, tiny freshwater pearls, and horsehair. Jewellery Findings such as clasps, pins and settings were made of copper, zinc, brass.

the process of drawing the embroidery pattern

Ancient Russian jewellery, typically, was weaved. Wire weaving and, beadweaving looked like filigree, reminding snowflakes. The shape was inspired by the monumentalism of church domes. Some weaved jewellery pieces looked like maces, encrusted by sparkling stones. Some were like wings of butterflies, which surrounded the central element, in the middle. This element typically was a gemstone or a bigger pearl denoting the Sun.

The Symbolism

The works, dating from the 12-14th centuries, reflect the influences of Byzantium, where motifs seemed to be “fused” with traditional pagan images, but gained specific display and character. The influence of Byzantium on Russian culture and society, culture and politics cannot be understated. Eastern Roman Empire took part in changing Russia not through conquest and suppression but by cultural exchange. The cross in Christianity is traditionally a religious symbol and an object of religious veneration in several Christian denominations. In Christian theology, it is seen as a symbol indicating the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ. The phenomenon of the cult of Cross in Christianity is associated with the martyrdom of Jesus Christ, which he accepted on the cross, by the sentence of Pontius Pilate. Crucifixion on the cross was a widely spread method of execution in ancient Rome, borrowed from the Carthaginians - the descendants of the Phoenician colonists (it is believed that the crucifix was first used in Phenicia). The Christian cross has many variations. The English word "cross" comes from the Latin "crux", meaning "tree, gallows or other wooden tools of execution." The corresponding verb "cruciare" means "torture, torment." The cross is one of the oldest and universal graphic (geometric) symbols of heterogeneous origin. In mythopoetic and religious systems, one of the most common symbols, often functioning as a symbol of higher sacred values.

a close-up of beadwork element

The Cross is also used as a decorative element placed at the highest level of an Imperial crown. Its usage traditionally symbolises the Christian nature of the monarchy. Though, not all crowns, even in monarchies associated with Christianity, used the cross as its top decoration (with some French crowns using other national symbols). The Cross is also found in heraldry, commonly interpreted as the reward in heaven coming after the trials in this life. The couching stitch was common for most goldwork embroideries. The use of various metal threads: gold, silver, copper was also popular despite the prejudice that silver may conflict with gold having different temperature tones. Craftsmen masterly combined them, making their works shine in magnificent colours being accompanied by the glow of pearls and precious stones.

the process of drawing the embroidery pattern
goldwork embroidery piece

In the series of works inspired by Russian Imperial beauty, I tried to use the traditional techniques of goldwork and beadweaving. I used the same material that makers of the past used in their creations: golden wire and golden thread, freshwater pearls, raw silk. I designed this series of embroidery patterns, with the respect to the historical items and works displayed in Russian museums. By materialising patterns in my embroidery works, I express love for the national heritage, culture and traditions which I treasure.

close-up of goldwork embroidery element

If you are passionate about the tradition of goldwork and interested in various types of it, I would be glad to share what I know and reveal some ideas on making a jewellery box.

a jewllery box with embroidered cover

In October 2022, I am going to give a week course on embroidery and craft in the Alps. There I will show how to make a piece worthy to be displayed at the Tsar's treasury, having only cardboard, glue, various threads, beads and fabrics.

a jewllery box with embroidered cover

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